Noble Blood

Excerpt: Chapter One

ACCUSED 
Paris, Friday, June 1, 1787

The morning was still fresh and cool. Anne Cartier left her home on Rue Saint-Honoré and walked briskly toward the school for the deaf on Rue des Moulins. Several young students were waiting for her. She was about to pass by the church of Saint-Roch, where she and her husband, Colonel Paul de Saint-Martin, had repeated their marriage vows three days ago. But, a commotion on the front steps caught her eye. She stopped to look.

A robust country woman selling bunches of violets had gathered a crowd. Words tumbled from her mouth.

"Murder . . . at the palace. . ."

Anne drew closer.

"A duchess . . . all bloody . . . head smashed in."

"Have they arrested anyone?" asked a man.

"Not yet."

The crowd dispersed in small groups passing the news on to others in the street. For a moment, Anne stood stock-still, astounded by what she had heard. Who would dare to kill such a prominent person in the king's own palace? Anne wondered if Paul would become involved in the investigation as head of the police for the region surrounding Paris. No, she remembered that another officer was responsible for the royal palace at Versailles.

The thought of her husband drew her up the steps to the door. They had married first in her own church, St. John's in Hampstead, near London, after an adventurous visit to Bath. They had agreed then to repeat their vows in Saint-Roch, Paul's parish church.

She walked through the main body of the church and into the circular Lady Chapel. They had stood there side by side beneath the tall painted dome. Catholic bishops did not allow "mixed marriages" in their churches. She was Anglican, Paul was Catholic. Nonetheless, a friendly priest led the ceremony, and a few invited friends and relatives attended.

It had been one of the happiest days of her life, except for a sudden, powerful attack of anxiety while leaving the church. Had she given away too much of herself? She had been independent since childhood. For years, she had worked as her stepfather's partner on stage, earned her own money, called no man her master.

Would Paul keep his pledge to honor her, treat her as an equal? In the Law's eyes, he enjoyed the exclusive rights of a man and an aristocrat. Her property and the outward aspects of her life were subject to his control. She had no rights, only a woman's servile obligations. As a commoner, she could not even share his name. Their children could not inherit his title or his privileges. At that moment, she felt as if the Law as well as the Church frowned on her.

The Law notwithstanding, Paul had promised to treat her according to the mutual understanding they had reached over the year of their courtship. They would be equal partners, respecting each other's wishes, sharing each other's interests. His character was her guarantee.

Though the attack was nearly overwhelming, she reminded herself that he had been tested and had proven to be an honorable, generous, and enlightened man. Sensing her distress, he had glanced at her, pressed her hand, dispelled her fears. Her peace of mind had returned.

Church bells announcing the hour nudged her back to the present. They seemed to toll for the murdered woman. Shuddering, Anne prayed for her, then slipped out the side door, and hurried to her students.

* * *

The air in the small classroom was warm and stuffy. Beads of perspiration gathered on Anne's brow, as she surveyed the half-dozen young children seated in front of her. They had just gone through an hour of exercises in signing. Their shoulders sagged with fatigue, their eyelids drooped. In another minute they would fall asleep.

It was midmorning at the institute and time for a brief rest. She gestured the children to a puppet stage off in a corner and began a shortened familiar version of Punch and Judy with simple text. Their faces brightened immediately, as if inner lights had been lit.

This was a cherished moment for Anne, when her art brought joy to others. As the story progressed, the boys and girls eagerly entered into the illusion, spontaneously signing to the figures on the stage.

Suddenly, the door burst open. Françoise Arnaud rushed breathless into the room and beckoned Anne to follow her. Anxiety furrowed her usually calm brow. "Abbé de l'Épée wants to see you right away," she signed as they hurried to his office. "Something terrible has happened."

While Françoise hovered nearby, Anne knocked softly on the door until a feeble voice invited her in. Small, gray, and bent, the priest was seated at a table behind a pile of books and paper. He inclined his head apologetically. "Forgive me, Madame, if I do not rise to greet you. I am a tired old man, but I am nonetheless grateful that you have come." He waved her to a chair. His hands trembled noticeably.

"How can I help you?" Anne couldn't imagine what had upset him so much. The many frustrations of his seventy-five years had made him patient and wise. Just recently, the archbishop of Paris had blocked the government's attempt to move the school to larger, more suitable quarters in an empty convent. The prelate and the abbé disagreed on some point of theology, Anne had heard. When asked about it, the abbé had merely shrugged. "After I'm gone, His Excellency will have no reason to object. A new director will be found, and the institute will prosper."

The abbé glanced down at his hands clasped tightly before him as if reluctant to ask a favor, then sighed and looked up. "Madame, I'm sorry to trouble you. Would you kindly speak to your good husband Colonel Saint-Martin and find out what has happened to our Denise at Versailles? The police have arrested her -- they say she murdered Duchesse Aimée de Saumur. A deaf servant at the palace has brought the news but knew nothing more. I am most distressed. She was one of my best students and I helped place her in that household."

Anne consoled him and promised to ask Paul if he had heard anything. "I'll go to him now."

* * *

Mademoiselle Arnaud was still in the hall, biting her lip, pacing nervously. Anne took her by the hand, calmed her, then signed, "Come walk with me to my husband's office in our home on Rue Saint-Honoré. It's a short distance. I'll explain on the way."

Out on the street Anne related the news from the palace. Her companion read Anne's signs intently, shaking her head in disbelief.

"I know Denise well -- she couldn't do such a terrible thing." Françoise signed that the young maid had a good character as well as a pretty face and a shapely figure. "Men notice her." Françoise smiled a little. "But she's strong and knows her worth."

"And her hearing?" asked Anne.

"Deaf from birth." Her companion explained that Denise came from a respectable family. Her father was once a magistrate in the royal court at Abbeville, had lived in a fine house and owned a handsome carriage. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her. A kindly aunt raised her and eventually placed her in the institute. Two years ago, her father also died, leaving Denise a modest sum of money.

"How long was she with you?"

"At least three years."

For the rest of the way, Françoise appeared absorbed in thought, her brow creased by the effort. Anne wondered if Denise's character were less straightforward than appeared at first glance.

"Here we are." Anne pointed to a portal. A small plain sign announced the residence of the provost of the Royal Highway Patrol for the Paris region. In the courtyard a coach stood ready. A team of four horses snorted with impatience and rattled their harness. A somber-looking man in buff breeches, blue coat with red cuffs and lapels, and a sword at his side strode out of the building.

"Aha," Anne exclaimed, waving at him. "That's my husband about to leave. We've arrived in time." She embraced him and introduced Françoise as Abbé de l'Épée's assistant.

Paul bowed courteously. "Please excuse me, ladies, I must drive quickly to Versailles. There's been a murder. Baron Breteuil has involved me in the investigation."

Anne placed her hand on his arm. "Before you go, Paul, you need to hear what I've learned from Françoise about the suspect you're going to meet."

He stared at the women, surprised. "How did you . . . ?"

Anne cut him short with a teasing smile. "Word reached Abbé de l'Épée."

He hesitated for a moment. "Would the two of you ride with me to the palace? Then Mademoiselle Arnaud could inform me about the young maid. I'll share what I've been told."

* * *

The coach rolled past the city gate and out onto the road to Versailles, twelve miles away, Anne sitting next to Paul, Françoise facing them. He spoke carefully for the deaf woman's sake, while Anne signed. "The victim, a lady-in-waiting to the queen, was found shortly after dawn, beaten to death. Evidence at the site implicates Mademoiselle de Villers, her personal maid."

Paul looked sideways at Anne. "It's odd that Baron Breteuil has called me. The palace at Versailles lies outside my jurisdiction."

Anne wasn't surprised. Breteuil was Paul's distant relative and patron. As Minister of the Royal Household, the baron must believe that the murder of a person in the queen's circle might raise delicate issues. Her enemies were hungry for scandal, the closer to the queen the better. Paul's habitual discretion had earned the minister's respect. Two months ago, he had sent him to Bath, in England, to catch a rogue who had assaulted the baron's goddaughter, Sylvie de Chanteclerc. It was a difficult mission in a country traditionally hostile to France. The fugitive was well connected and wily. Paul completed his task without creating a diplomatic mess. The baron was grateful.

"Tell me, Mademoiselle Arnaud, what you know." Paul spoke gently and signed, looking to Anne for help. She had begun to teach him.

Françoise swallowed nervously. Her hands were stiff, awkward. The colonel's high rank seemed to scare her. He came from one of the kingdom's oldest noble families. His father had been a general of cavalry in the royal army. Though well-bred, Mademoiselle Arnaud rarely ventured outside the circle of her friends and acquaintances at the institute or in the Parisian deaf community.

With a nod of encouragement from Anne, the young woman took a deep breath, glanced shyly at the colonel, and related Denise's story.

At the end Paul remarked, "An unusually gifted young woman, this Mademoiselle de Villers." His head tilted skeptically. "But deaf nonetheless. I would have guessed that she worked in the laundry. How did she come to be Duchesse Aimée's personal maid?"

"Through talent, ambition, and good fortune," Françoise replied. "She once told me God had destined her for a higher place in life than the other deaf girls at the institute. They would sew in a milliner's shop from morning to night for the rest of their lives. She would one day have her own shop and cater to great ladies."

Paul frowned. "She appears more presumptuous than ambitious."

Françoise waved her hands, appearing to misunderstand him.

Anne hastened to explain. "To my husband it seems rash for the young maid to have aspired to a station in life that was well above her reach."

Françoise nodded guardedly. "Perhaps Denise is a little vain and may take pride in her superior intelligence and good looks. At the institute she also cared more for her appearance than other deaf girls did. Her gowns were simple but of the finest wool and well cut." Françoise signed emphatically. "Still her ambition is reasonable, her goals within reach. She's energetic and resourceful, paid her own way at the institute. Deafness is an obstacle she feels sure she can overcome."

"What did fellow students think of her?" asked Paul doubtfully.

Françoise took a moment to ponder his question, then replied guardedly. "Most of them respected her. She was expert in lip reading and signing, as well as kind and generous. But a few others resented her superior attitude and envied her talents. Sometimes they were rude or played tricks on her. That hurt her feelings. She told me she had begun to feel it was time to leave the institute. When the opportunity at the palace came, she seized it."

As Anne signed this report to Paul, she was strongly moved. She had not known Denise, who had left the institute before Anne arrived in Paris a year ago. But Françoise's description was so graphic, so sympathetic, that Anne could put herself in the deaf maid's place and share her hopes. These were now in jeopardy. To be arrested on suspicion of murdering a great lady was a very grave matter. Anne tried vainly to avoid thinking of the dire consequences.

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